We Want the Airwaves transcript – Mimi Thi Nguyen

Nia: So you proudly self-identify as an old lady punk in the academy.
Mimi: Yes. [laughter]
Nia: I'm curious—I don't actually know how old you are. I assume it's not that old. [laughter]—but I'm
curious, what has kept you punk after all these years?
Mimi: [laughter] Well, I'm !. So, I'm pretty old. [laughter] "or punk.
Nia: [laughter] #k, for punk.
Mimi: I don't know. [laughter] You know, I ha$e claimed to ha$e %uit punk a lot of times. [laughter]
Nia: & $ery punk thin' to do.
Mimi: Which is a totally punk thin' to do( )o be like *"uck all y'all( I'm %uittin'( +unk is dead( You
all suck(,
Nia: [laughter]
Mimi: -ut I also reali.ed how much I'm still shaped by bein' punk, ri'ht. So, and then e$ery time I'$e
said *I %uit punk,, I was li$in' in a city where I could say I %uit punk, but I was still han'in' out with
all my punk friends, and I was still 'oin' to shows, so what does that mean? So then, when I mo$ed to
the /idwest, and I had for the first time, the e0perience of bein' a weirdo in a small town, then all my
punk feelin's came back. 1ike, what does it mean to be a weirdo in a small town? I'd ne$er had that
e0perience before. So, that really also reconnected me with my punk feelin's, and also bein' in the
academy. -ein' actually in the academy, sort of reconnected me with a lot of my punk feelin's, and
how I want to be, how I want to na$i'ate that space. &nd, truthfully, it's also still a lot of the music that
I listen to. &nd the way in which I reali.ed bein' in the academy for how many years now? 2i'ht years.
3ow much—I had a whole creati$e and intellectual life before I came to the academy, and that's
because of punk. So I do still identify as a punk kid. [laughter]
Nia: [laughter] &s an old lady punk kid.
Mimi: &s an old lady punk kid.
Nia: [laughter] &nd you mo$ed to the /idwest to teach, is that correct?
Mimi: Yeah, so I mo$ed to the /idwest, because I 'ot a 4ob as an assistant professor in 5ender and
Women's Studies, and &sian-&merican Studies, so I had to mo$e.
Nia: What is that you think makes you a weirdo?
Mimi: You mean, in the academy, or in the /idwest?
Nia: -oth.
Mimi: -oth. You know, I feel like I still ha$e a lot of my same mannerisms from when I was—I'm 4ust
not that polished, as a person. I really resisted bein' professionali.ed in 'raduate school. When I was in
'raduate school, you'd always hear about how to present yourself so you seemed like a professional,
and claimin' your title, and all these other thin's—I'm not interested in doin' any of these thin's. I'm
not interested in claimin' a title. I'm not interested in—
Nia: What does claimin' a title mean?
Mimi: You know, makin' people call me *professor., I don't make my students call me *professor.,
Which is a whole other thin', because I know that a whole lot of other women of color in the academy
want to claim that title in order to claim authority in the classroom, but that's 4ust not how I ima'ine my
classroom, as me in an authority position. &nd I attribute a lot of that, the way that I am in the
classroom and the way I am with my collea'ues, to 'rowin' up punk, which is $ery suspicious of
authority fi'ures, and now that I'm an authority fi'ure, I'm suspicious of myself. So I'm always tryin'
to undermine my own authority, which is a weird thin' to do in the classroom.
Nia: &nd so you said that you distrust—I don't know if distrust was the word you used—but you
distrust yourself as an authority fi'ure, but you also, I think, ha$e a lot of distrust and criticism of the
academy. 6an you talk about that a little bit?
Mimi: I definitely do ha$e a lot of feelin's about the academy, and—especially as someone who had
no particular intention of becomin' a professor. When I went to 'raduate school, I 4ust wanted to learn
more stuff, and 4ust ha$e—you know, it's a real lu0ury to be able to sit around and—as 'raduate
students, you do end up doin' a lot of labor, but it is nonetheless a lu0ury to ha$e structured time to
spend time reflectin' and thinkin' and readin' and writin'. -ut I also learned to be suspicious in
'raduate school of the academy because of the way in which—not 4ust the professionali.ation aspect in
terms of claimin' mastery o$er a field of knowled'e and all that stuff, because of course, you know,
punk is all about—I definitely 'ot from punk the idea that e$eryone can—that e0pertise doesn't ha$e to
be distributed throu'h institutional means. )hat we can all become e0perts of somethin'. &ll those
kinds of ideas about anti-hierarchical knowled'e and stuff like that. So, all those attitudes I ended up
brin'in' with me into the academy once I ended up decidin' that I would become a professor, and then
'ettin' a 4ob in the academy, and so it does make it a weird, conflicted relationship.
So, one of the thin's I ha$e a commitment to is public education, so that's I'$e only e$er applied to 4obs
at public schools, because that's a commitment of mine. -ut, public uni$ersities are increasin'ly
corporati.ed. So, what does that mean for me to be, one, workin' for the state, which is such a weird
thin' to think about, and two, to be in public education that's increasin'ly pri$ati.ed and corporati.ed,
and that so much of the place that I work, 7ni$ersity of Illinois, so much of the fundin' comes from the
fact that it's historically an a'ricultural school. So, we ha$e /onsanto doin' e0periments at my school.
&nd we ha$e, I think we ha$e some nuclear thin'y. It spins thin's around or somethin', I don't know.
-ut I ima'ine there's probably military contracts and stuff happenin'. 8efinitely at -erkeley, when I
was a 'raduate student there, there were definitely military contracts with the 1awrence 1i$ermore lab,
and stuff like that. So, what does all that mean for me to be in$ested in public education, but then be
in$ol$ed in an institution that's doin' this kind of work on behalf of corporate and military-industrial
comple0es? It is a weird position to be in. )o think about those commitments and those criticisms
ha$in' to be side by side, and to li$e with that.
Nia: 3ow do you brin' your sort of anti-authoritarianism to the classroom? What does that look like?
Mimi: It's probably pretty funny to the students, because I do constantly undermine myself. I'll be like,
okay, you ha$e these assi'nments, you ha$e to do it this way, it has to look like this, here's a deadline.
-ut at the same time I'll be like, but really, you know, why do we ima'ine that an ar'ument has to
follow these con$entional forms, and why do you ha$e to write it in this lan'ua'e, and why do we e$en
think that work is supposed to be 'ood for us?
Nia: [laughter]
Mimi: Where do these ideas come from, like this idea that bein' producti$e and bein' a 'ood worker,
and bein' able to follow these con$entions for how we use lan'ua'e to communicate with each other?
Why do we think any of these thin's make sense? What kinds of hidden limits and $ulnerabilities and
ideolo'ical constraints are in$ol$ed in me askin' you to do this assi'nment? So that's what I sound like
in the classroom. It's really funny.
Nia: 8o your students e$er come to you and like *#h, sorry, I didn't do the assi'nment, I was resistin'
Mimi: [laughter] I wish(( -ut I'm not that—I'm not a disciplinarian, which is somethin' I fi'ured out
early on, e$en thou'h I was told a lot as a woman of color who's small, and I look really youn', that I
would ha$e to take e0tra steps to command the respect of my students. &nd I think that would be true if
I wasn't teachin' in 5ender and Women's Studies. -ecause 5ender and Women's Studies is a $ery self-
selectin' 'roup of students. So, they're not necessarily automatically inclined to ima'ine that I don't
know what I'm talkin' about. Whereas, I think it mi'ht be different in a traditional discipline, like
history or 2n'lish or somethin' like that. "or the first couple years, I tried to be a serious person in the
classroom, but I'm not that serious. 1ike, it would always fall apart by like the third week—
Nia: What does *pretendin' to be serious, look like for you? 8id you wear a suit?
Mimi: 9o, I can't wear suits because I look like I'm playin' dress-up. -ut I would wear—like, my idea
of bein' serious was, I would wear all black on the first day of class.
Nia: )hat's so punk.
Mimi: [laughter] &nd I would try to smile a lot less. -ecause I compulsi$ely smile, I smile all the
time. Which is not that punk.
Nia: [laughter]
Mimi: So I tried to look serious, and I asked students, at least try to call me +rofessor 9'uyen for the
first couple times, after that you can call me /imi. Which was not that authoritarian, but that was as
close as I could 'et at the time. -ut then I 4ust 'a$e all that up after a few years because it 4ust didn't
work for me as a way of ima'inin' my classroom. -ecause ideally, I like to think of my classroom,
especially a 5ender : Women's Studies classroom, as a place where I'm facilitatin', and while I ha$e a
sort of %uantitati$ely lar'er body of knowled'e to draw on, I don't necessarily—I ima'ine that it's kind
of like me facilitatin' a skillshare. Where we're all workin' on our skills to think about certain kinds of
phenomena. While I'$e had more e0perience and more history with the skillset, e$eryone is
participatin' in this pro4ect of honin' those skills. Includin' myself. So that's kind of how I ima'ine
Nia: &nd what are your areas of interest within &sian-&merican Studies and Women and 5ender
Mimi: 1ike, what do I teach?
Nia: Yeah, but what are you e0cited about?
Mimi: I actually really like teachin' feminist theories and methods. In &sian-&merican Studies, I really
only teach one class, which is &sian &mericans in the &rts. So I actually really en4oy teachin' the art
class. I teach most of my classes in 5ender and Women's Studies, and I mostly teach feminist theory,
and I really like teachin' theory a lot.
Nia: What kind of stuff do you co$er in that class?
Mimi: We co$er a lot of %uestions about what kind of common-sense ideas we 'et about 'ender and
se0uality race, and e$en the accumulation and production of knowled'e, and then thinkin' critically
about all those kinds of ideas that we take for 'ranted about knowled'e, about what race, what 'ender,
what se0uality looks like. I'm really interested in thinkin' about how we know what we think we know,
and what the limits and $ulnerabilities of those sort of common-sensical ways of thinkin' about
knowled'e mi'ht be. If that makes sense.
Nia: Yeah. So you're %uestionin' sort of—it sounds $ery epistemolo'ical.
Mimi: Yes. /y fa$orite thin' to teach in terms of feminist theory is all about epistemolo'ical %uestions
about, why do we think we know anythin' about a particular sub4ect? What are the sort of formations
of knowled'e, what are the ways of or'ani.in' knowled'e that we ha$e that shape our understandin'
of the world and how we—and how this affects the or'ani.ation of bodies and ima'es and monies and
how they circulate in the world.
Nia: 3ow is askin' those %uestions feminist, or different from the kind of %uestions you would talk
about in a 'eneral philosophy class?
Mimi: )here's so much—a lot of the work I teach is written by feminist theorists who are askin' these
kinds of bi' %uestions, and thinkin' about what relationships 'ender and se0uality and race ha$e to
institutional, but also intuiti$e structures of power. Ideas that certain thin's are supposed to be intuiti$e,
but they're actually ideolo'ically put to'ether. 1ike, ideas about 'ender and se0uality that are
supposedly intuiti$e, but that ha$e institutional structures backin' them up. /y hope is always that
some of the material will stick past the ;< weeks that I ha$e them in class with me for three hours a
week. )hat somethin' about it will stick, and that it'll—it's like a 'rain of sand inside an oyster, and
someday it will turn into a pearl, and maybe I won't 'et to see it, or e0perience the pearl that they 'row
from whate$er they 'et out of the course materials, but that's #= too.
Nia: )hat's a really beautiful metaphor.

Mimi: )hank you, thank you( [laughter]
Nia: 6ould you talk about the pri$ati.ation and corporati.ation of the academy, a little bit? )hat's really
broad. -ut you were sayin' that there's a tension that's created for you workin' for the state and
workin' for these institutions that are problematic in these particular ways, and also bein' an old lady
Mimi: I mean, ob$iously the pri$ate schools are also corporati.ed, and certainly complicit with all
kinds of corporate and state interests that I am not in fa$or of, so it's not like I can a$oid it at all.
Increasin'ly, the state ima'ines that public education is not a priority, which means that a lot of bud'et
cuts are happenin' left and ri'ht in public education. In 6hica'o, for instance, >ahm 2manuel has
closed like ?@ =-;A schools in areas that mostly ser$e populations of color, and then 'i$en like ?@
million dollars to a pri$ate colle'e to de$elop a new sports arena. I mean, it's really remarkable that
public education is increasin'ly not a priority. Which means that public uni$ersities ha$e to 'o
elsewhere for money. )hat in$ol$es anythin' from raisin' tuition on students to askin' faculty to apply
to more e0ternal 'rants from state a'encies that ha$e money, like the military, or from corporations. So
there's a lot of interest in faculty 'ettin' these e0ternal 'rants, and brin'in' in e0ternal money.
Nia: &nd are those 'rants specifically for research, or that's 4ust to like, pay your salary so you can
keep doin' your 4ob?
Mimi: It depends. "or instance, in schools of public health, a lot of faculty ha$e to fundraise for their
own salaries by 'ettin' outside 'rants. )hat's not my situation because I'm in the humanities, and
nobody's 'onna pay me money to do the work I'm doin'. 9o e0ternal a'ency is 'onna pay me that kind
of money. -ut definitely that's a precarious situation. So for people who are doin' research in public
policy, or public health, there is a lot of push to 'et corporate money to do that kind of work and that
kind of research. So, that's a reality, too, of the public uni$ersities. )hat, like I said, /onsanto is all
o$er my campus.
Nia: It sounds like you're sayin' that the humanities are less co-optable because nobody wants to buy
them. [laughter]
Mimi: )he humanities are definitely, at least on my campus, but I think on a lot of campuses, are
definitely seen as the least profitable part of the uni$ersity, e$en thou'h the humanities are also the
place where the business schools and the sciences ima'ine that we will make the students into people
who can articulate themsel$es in writin'. We do a lot of teachin'. )he humanities does a bulk of the
teachin', e$en on my campus.
Nia: &re you sayin' that other departments don't teach?
Mimi: I'm sayin' in some of the business schools, and some of the sciences, the professors teach less
than we do in the humanities.
Nia: In terms of actual hours, or—?
Mimi: In terms of actual hours. In terms of classes per semester, and thin's like that. I can't belie$e you
find this interestin'.

9o, I think it's really interestin'(
Mimi: In the humanities we do a lot of the teachin', in terms of 4ust teachin' them basic skills, in terms
of writin' and composition, and bein' able to interact with people. &nd so we do a lot of the teachin'
that is about preparin' them for whate$er 4obs they ima'ine they'll ha$e afterward. -ut we're seen as
teachers and not researchers.
Nia: &s opposed to other departments.
Mimi: &s opposed to other departments that ima'ine that they're researchers, because their work is
about the *real world,, %uote-un%uote and the humanities is somehow not. So there's definitely a weird
idea about the humanities as both disposable, but also indispensable. 8isposable in terms of we don't
do real research, but indispensable in terms of that's where a lot of the teachin' happens. We're 'oin'
throu'h a search to find the dean for the 6olle'e of 1etters, &rts, and 3umanities, and it's been like a
series of scientists and stuff who'$e come in to apply for the 4ob, and someone from the humanities
asked one of the applicants, *What is your $ision for the humanities?, because the humanities are
included as part of the 6olle'e of 1etters, &rts, and Sciences of course. &nd they were like, *well, you
know, I really lo$e music., ...was their answer for the $ision of the humanities. >i'ht, so it's this idea
that the humanities is kind of like, disposable, it's like the fun stuff—you en4oy music and you like
lookin' at art.
Nia: It seems weird that the sciences and humanities would e$en be lumped to'ether.
Mimi: Yeah.
Nia: It doesn't make any sense.
Mimi: Yeah, it doesn't make any sense. -ecause it's really une$en how the humanities and the sciences
are treated in the same colle'e.
Nia: Yeah. I think—So, my dad is a professor.
Mimi: #h, okay.
Nia: &nd I think that's part of the reason why I find the academy really interestin', because—
Mimi: What does he teach?
Nia: +sycholo'y.
Mimi: #kay.
Nia: -ecause I know—like I had this 'eneral sense 'rowin' up that he was in a $ery hostile work
en$ironment, and that there was a lot of politics and backstabbin' in the academy, but I ne$er really
understood why. &nd I feel like I continue to, as I ha$e more and more friends that are 'oin' to 'rad
school and are miserable, I'm always hearin' about how competiti$e it is, and it's like I know that to be
true but I still don't really understand why. I think maybe on some le$el I still ha$e this weird idea of—
you know, it took me a while to reali.e that colle'es are basically corporations, and, like, moneymakin'
endea$ors, because I was sort of tau'ht to think of them as these sort of utopian places of learnin'. I
think that a lot of people 'row up thinkin' that, whether their parents are professors or not. -ut you're
in a uni%ue position to sort of articulate why are these spaces so cutthroat and so corporate when they're
supposed to be about learnin'.
Mimi: #h no. )hey're super corporate. )here's been an e0plosion in the last ;@ years of administrati$e
positions in the uni$ersities that are all about corporate fundraisin', about mana'in' +> and all these
other concerns that ha$e nothin' to do with the work of teachin'. )here's a lot of talk on campuses
about creatin'—like, my campus spends a lot of money on facilities for students. )here are some
schools that are basically like four-year resorts. )here's so many de$elopments on my campus that are,
like, apartments for students that ha$e maid ser$ice, and there's like a flat-screen in e$ery room, and
free wi-fi. It's 4ust like a super fancy resort.
Nia: Is that to attract students with money, that will then ideally subsidi.e the rest of the school?
Mimi: Yes. &nd to 4ustify the tuition raises. -ut of course, not all students are 'onna be able to access
the fancy de$elopments.
Nia: >i'ht. I would assume most students probably can't.
Mimi: It's a really weird situation. It's completely a fucked up situation.
Nia: #kay. [laughter] So I'm reali.in' we ha$en't actually talked that much about your work
Mimi: #kay.
Nia: )he reason you and I know each other is throu'h .ines. You wrote a really influential .ine, which
I think you said was back in '!B.
Mimi: Yes.
Nia: 6alled Evolution of a Race Riot, which I belie$e was one of the first .ines about punks of color.
6ould you talk a little bit about why people are still askin' you about that kind of work so many years
Mimi: [laughter] I think that when I started collectin' contributions to that compilation .ine—I started
collectin' thin's in ;!!C—I think that it still resonates because we didn't—I don't think that we had a
con$ersation about race or racism in punk on that scale, of ha$in' a collecti$e con$ersation about it, or
a dialo'ue about it, until then, as far as I know. So we had homocore in the late D@s, to start talkin'
about se0uality and %ueer se0ualities, and then of course riot 'rrl happened, and all of a sudden we
were talkin' about 'ender and miso'yny, but we hadn't yet in punk had that kind of con$ersation about
race. I was really feelin' its absence after a series of fucked up encounters with the way that punk
talked about race and racism.
Nia: 6an you 'i$e an e0ample?
Mimi: Yeah. I mean, basically what made me do the Race Riot .ine was a columnist for Maximum
Rocknroll, which is based in San "rancisco, and I was in the -ay &rea at the time 'oin' to school,
wrote a column about how he really lo$ed &sian women because—and then he made these 4okes about
how &sian women's eyelids look like slants, or are slanted, and thus looked like $ul$a. Which I don't
e$en know how that happens. &nd then resurrected an old imperial 4oke about how maybe he's really
curious about how whether &sian women's $ul$a were also slanted and hori.ontal.
Nia: Sometimes I wish that the listeners could see my face.
Mimi: [laughter] So you know, there's a lon' history of imperial speculation about the bodies of racial
and colonial women bein' somehow inhuman and se0ually distinct from white, 2uropean women's
bodies, and it bein' both a source of dis'ust, but also desire. >i'ht, so there's a lon' imperial history of
that. So he resurrected that 4oke and told it in the pa'es of Maximum Rocknroll.
Nia: Which is—does Maximum Rocknroll ha$e sort of anti—
Mimi: Yes.
Nia: I know it's supposed to be punk, but does it ha$e, like—?
Mimi: #fficially it did say, no racism, no se0ism, no homophobia. -ut that column 'ot published
anyway. So I was like ;!, I was a 5ender and Women's Studies under'raduate, I was readin' all this
postcolonial feminist theory. I wrote a $ery pissed off letter to Maximum, that was like, half cuss words,
half postcolonial feminist theory, about how fucked up that was. It 'ot published, and then the
columnist decided to write a response that was all about me, and how e$en thou'h I was &sian, because
I was feminist, I was probably u'ly, so he wouldn't want to fuck me anyway. &nd then there was a
debate at the ma'a.ine, which I heard about because I had friends who worked there, about whether or
not to publish it. -ecause it seemed like maybe it was se0ist and racist. [laughter]
Nia: [laughter] +erhaps. It was also a personal attack.
Mimi: Yeah. & personal attack. &nd then the coordinator and founder of the ma'a.ine, )im Yohannan,
decided that it was satire. )hat it fell under the umbrella of satire. &nd so decided to publish it. So, in
the aftermath of ha$in' that column come out, it felt like—I knew )im. I met )im, because I worked at
the record store that he helped to start.
Nia: 3e's the one that ran it, or the one that wrote the column?
Mimi: 3e's the one who ran it. So I knew )im Yohannan, and I felt like, I 4ust felt—and the fact that it
ran in the pa'es of Maximum, which is internationally distributed, read, punk bible or whate$er. It 4ust
felt like I am not welcome in this scene. I'm not allowed to—we can't ha$e a con$ersation about race. I
can't ha$e a con$ersation about race or racism with these people. &nd 4ust the way that people were
respondin' to me or talkin' to me about it was 4ust pissin' me off. )he way that con$ersations would
happen or wouldn't happen around it. "riends would be like, *#h my 'od, I'm really sorry that
happened to you., but it was about the personal attack part, but not necessarily about the reproduction
of this fucked up punk racist cool thin'. 1ike, it's ironic, it's satirical, so it's not really racist. )here was
an anti-racist discourse in punk, but it was all about like, neo-9a.is and fi'htin' the =lan, and stuff like
that—which, you know, let's fi'ht the =lan and the neo-9a.is, but.
Nia: -ut it's all about lookin' outward, at the enemies of—
Mimi: Eery ob$ious.
Nia: &s opposed to lookin' inward at how people with in punk mi'ht be perpetuatin' oppression e$en
if they don't ha$e a swastika tattoo.
Mimi: &nd that kind of stance in punk is $ery old. )hat kind of ironic racism stance is $ery $ery—it's
been there since the be'innin', ri'ht? -ecause it's supposed to be shockin' to wear a swastika, or it's
supposed to be shockin' to say somethin', to be racist, ri'ht? )here's a lon' history of that in punk, and
I wanted to be able to talk about it. &nd I wanted to talk to other people of color about their e0periences
of punk. So I was like, *"uck punk, I'm not 'onna be punk anymore(, -ut before I lea$e punk—you
know, the first time—I want to make a con$ersation with other punks of color because I'm sick of
talkin' to white people about it. So that's how the first compilation .ine happened, was me wantin' to
ha$e that con$ersation, e$en if we didn't all a'ree, which we didn't, about what it should look like, how
to talk about race in punk. 3ow to talk about racism and anti-racism in punk. Fust to e$en ha$e the
be'innin's of con$ersation about that. )hat's how the first compilation .ine happened. I think that,
because—there were definitely .ines made by people of color before me, that talked about race and
racism, and I reprinted some of those that I could find in the compilation .ine, but to ha$e them be in
con$ersation to'ether I think hadn't happened yet. &nd so I think that's how it resonated.
Nia: Yeah. )here's such a hu'e 'ap, first of all, between I think what punk says it stands for, and the
way punks actually act. )he fact that that could run in a ma'a.ine that calls itself anti-racist and anti-
se0ist—I mean, I don't think the listeners need me to e0plain why that's a contradiction. -ut then there's
also so many different—people are drawn to punk for really different reasons.
Mimi: Yeah.
Nia: &nd some people are drawn for the shock $alue, I think. &nd there's a $ery nihilistic element of
punk that I was always $ery turned off by. -ut I'm tryin' to think of how to e0plain for listeners that
mi'ht not be punk that there's political punks and apolitical punks, and punks that actually really do
care about racism, and then a lot that say they do, but then are not doin' that reflection, lookin' inward
in terms of how—there are people who think that they're mar'inali.ed because they're punk, and that
that's like, the same as bein' a person of color. [laughter] "or e0ample.
Mimi: Yes. Yes.
Nia: So there's a real—and like with feminism or with any other political ideolo'y, there's a hu'e ran'e
of people who use that term to describe themsel$es who actually ha$e a really different ways of
thinkin' about thin's, or really different priorities and $alues. I'm really 'lad you told that story, and
I'm really 'lad you created that .ine. -ecause it seems like it was super—I mean it's still super crucial
to ha$e that con$ersation. I think I—#sa inter$iewed me for Maximum RnR in A@@!, and I talked about
why I don't call myself a punk anymore. &nd it was lar'ely like—I'm tired of people bein' full of shit.
Sayin' that they're anti-racist, but then, the shows are all white. 3er and I, I feel like, 'ot into this
debate about whether or not it's worth it to claim space for yourself in a scene that is 4ust inherently
hostile, and is always 'onna be hostile. &nd this 'oes back to the first %uestion I asked you, but—you
still call yourself a punk. Yeah. &s a punk of color, do you feel like it's important for you to claim that
space? 8o you feel like it's an intentional political choice?
Mimi: It's definitely not an intentional political choice, but for me I really feel like I 'rew up in punk. I
disco$ered it when I was ;?. It was hu'ely important for me. It totally informs how I interact with
people, and 4ust the way that my brain works in a lot of ways. So, it's not necessarily that I'm like *I'm
claimin' space for myself as a punk of color(, but it's like—this is 4ust how I 'rew up, I feel like. &nd
that's because punk is so many thin's to different people. 9yky says, e$erybody has a different punk
door, and that there's a moment when the punk door appears to you, and you either walk throu'h it, or
you don't, but e$eryone's door is different. 2$eryone's entry into punk is different.
/y entry to punk was definitely thou'h politics, and feelin' like a weirdo, and wantin' to think about
politics. )he first Maximum Rocknroll I picked up when I was ;?, I learned about >onald >ea'an's
co$ert operations in 6entral &merica, and how he was workin' to undermine democratic, socialist
mo$ements and 'o$ernments. &nd that totally was 4ust like, oh my 'od, my mind is blown. )his is
where I want to be, readin', knowin' about this stuff. So, I feel like other people bein' shitty in punk,
like shitty punks don't take that away from me. )hat that was my entry into learnin' about radical
politics and meetin' radical, awesome feminists and %ueers and weirdos and artists. So, I don't feel like
shitty punks take that away from me. -ut, it also helps that since I'$e done that .ine, that I'$e mana'ed
to find a community of punks of color who are ama.in' and smart and rad—punks of color, and
feminist punks, and stuff. So those are the people I think about when I think about punk. So that helps.
Nia: Yeah. )hat makes me feel better.
Mimi: [laughter]
Nia: I think it's interestin' that 9yky uses the punk door metaphor—I say it like it's a metaphor I'$e
heard it before, it's not—because I started, I feel like really recently talkin' about punk as like, this
party that I came in the side door into, thinkin' it was one party, and it took me a $ery lon' time to
reali.e it wasn't that party and to lea$e.
Mimi: [laughter]
Nia: [laughter] -ecause it presented itself in my life, anyway, as anti-racist, anti-se0ist, pro-%ueer, and
then turned out to be $ery much, like—you can't really make any 'enerali.ations about punk because
it's so, I was 'onna say di$erse, which is kind of ironic, but likeGbecause ob$iously there are people
that are punks of color and feminist punks and %ueer punks, that are really doin' the work, but then
there are also a lot of people that are usin'—in -oston in particular I feel like it was class war
anarchism as a way to 4ust not talk about race, or e$en really class in a meanin'ful way. [laughter] &nd
then you also write a .ine called Slander.
Mimi: /mm-hmm.
Nia: Is that like—you'$e been doin' that for a lon' time, since the !@s as well?
Mimi: Yeah. I chan'ed its name a couple times. -ut now it's been Slander for a lon' time. So, yeah,
I'$e done that .ine as well. It also mostly has been pretty political.
Nia: Is it a per.ine, or—what's it about?
Mimi: Slander has been a lot of—it's definitely informed by what I'm doin' in school. -ecause I
started it when I was an under'raduate, so a lot of it is me takin' what I learned in school, and applyin'
it to punk situations or punk politics, or takin' the thin's I'$e learned in school and puttin' it into a .ine
about feminist theory and stuff like that. So, for instance, the $ery first—I was learnin' all these
women of color feminisms, and I wrote about riot 'rrl throu'h all the women of color feminisms I was
readin' and learnin' about in my .ine. So, my criti%ues of the way race 'ets talked about in riot 'rrl,
for instance.
Nia: 8oes race 'et talked about in riot 'rrl?
Mimi: It wasn't at the time, e0cept in really weird and troublin' ways. )his is like, the early !@s. I
remember—I'm not sayin' this is representati$e—but I remember 'ettin' a riot 'rrl .ine from Southern
6alifornia, where the author, who was probably a teena'er at the time like I was, was talkin' about how
she hated %uote-un%uote *beaners,, and that the %uote-un%uote *beaners, were the most responsible for
se0ually harrassin' her on the street, and stuff like that. Fust bein' like, woah( 1ike, what the fuck(? So,
it would ran'e from that kind of thin' to these really weird, this kind of white liberal hand-wrin'in'
about not ha$in' enou'h people of color in their li$es, and needin' to 'o make more friends with
people of color, which seems so creepy( 1ike, collectin' people of color to shore up their anti-racist
credibility. &nd I was like, oh my 'od( 9o(
Nia: 8id you e$er feel like you were bein' tokeni.ed as a punk of color? #r—I don't know if you
identified as a riot 'rrl of color?
Mimi: I did not identify as a riot 'rrl at the time, e$en thou'h now people think I was.
Nia: )here was a show—sorry. )he +#6 Hine +ro4ect show we did in Seattle, some 'uy came in, I
think 4ust like off the street, because the $enue had hu'e plate 'lass windows and was ri'ht at street
le$el, and was like *#h, it's so 'reat that you 'uys are here, because I'm presentin' a paper on riot 'rrl
tomorrow(, and )oi IScottJ and I were workin' by the door and we're like *... I can't help you. I don't
know anythin' about riot 'rrl. )his is not a riot 'rrl party.,
Mimi: I mean, that's a whole other thin'. )he way in which riot 'rrl at the time, and still now, eclipses
all the other kinds of punk feminisms that were happenin' at the time. 1ike, punk and %ueer feminisms
that were happenin' at the time. I identified as an anarchist-feminist. -ecause I was kind of like, semi-
crust. -ecause I was clean( I would take showers. -ut my clothes were really 'ross.
Nia: [laughter] So you would nice and clean and then put on—
Mimi: Yes. I was personally clean, I don't know why I feel like that's important for people to know. I
was personally $ery tidy, but my clothes were, like, had that kind of crust sheen. &nyway. [laughter]
Nia: I feel like I would ha$e wanted a protecti$e layer between myself and my filthy clothes.
Mimi: [laughter] Well, this is another thin' that nobody really needs to know, but I'm 'onna say, is that
I actually don't ha$e, like, body odor. So that also helped.
Nia: [laughter] 3ow can you be punk if you don't ha$e -#?
Mimi: [laughter] I don't know( -ut I 4ust didn't. I didn't. It was both a 'ift and a curse. [laughter] So,
I didn't identify as a riot 'rrl. 1ike, I didn't understand reclaimin' femininity, because I didn't
e0perience femininity in the particular way that it seemed like a lot of punk women had, because of I
think their whiteness, they had a particular idea of what they looked like, that I didn't share. So I didn't
identify as a riot 'rrl, yet I 'et identified as a riot 'rrl in retrospect because I think there's a sort of
historio'raphic erasure of all the other kinds of punk feminisms that were happenin' at the time. #r
other kinds of feminisms, period. >i'ht, because it's so weird and fucked up how when people talk
about !@s feminism, they think riot 'rrl, instead of hip hop feminism. Which also emer'ed in the !@s.
It's hu'ely important, but often, in the media, when people talk about what !@s feminism was, it's like,
riot 'rrl.
Nia: 3mm. Which was probably so much less mainstream than hip hop.
Mimi: >i'ht( -ut, I don't know, that's a whole other thin'.
Nia: )hat's really interestin'. /y partner and I had this whole con$ersation about about how hip hop
influenced our se0uality. 3e's a couple years youn'er than me, so I 'rew up with like, Salt-n-+epa,
*9one of Your -usiness,, and I feel like that really helped me de$elop a positi$e—like, the sense that I
could say no, you know. &nd he 'rew up with =elis and her */ilkshake,, [laughter] With a $ery
different messa'e. I was like man( I wish you could ha$e 'rown up with Salt-n-+epa( )hin's mi'ht
ha$e been totally different( &nd—
Mimi: 3ow did we 'et on that? [laughter] Where did we start?
Nia: We were talkin' about Slander, and then we were talkin' about riot 'rrl—
Mimi: #h yeah.
Nia: -ut also, my best friend in hi'h school was a riot 'rrl, and I was $ery firmly a punk and not a riot
'rrl. &nd I feel like there's this thin' where it's like, if you're a woman punk, then 4ust defaultedly
people assume you're a riot 'rrl.
Mimi: /mm hmm. Yeah.
Nia: &nd I was $ery anti-riot 'rrl. I was like, no I don't want anythin' to do with that( I think it was
mostly because I saw riot 'rrl as a white thin'. &nd maybe also some internali.ed se0ism on my part.
Where I was like, I listen to bands with 'irls in them, but I don't listen to riot 'rrl bands. [laughter] It
seems really stupid lookin' back on it.
Mimi: Well, I mean, for me, because I was already in$ol$ed in anarchist politics, but also thinkin'
about 'eopolitics, like the >ea'an administration in 6entral &merica and stuff like that. )hat's where I
started off in my politics, and I feel like you didn't often see those kinds of %uestions addressed in riot
'rrl, about—
Nia: International politics?
Mimi: Yeah, like 'eopolitics or lar'er politics about the state and stuff like that.
Nia: Sorry, I'm not actually sure what 'eopolitics means.
Mimi: 5eopolitics, like interactions between lar'e states and armies and corporations, and all those
kinds of thin's. Imperial histories of international relationships and stuff like that.
Nia: Yeah. I think punk, too, is really selecti$e about what international political issues it cares about.
Mimi: Yeah.
Nia: 1ike there's this really weird, particularly amon' anarchists, romantici.ation that happens of the
Spanish 6i$il War.
Mimi: Yeaaaah.
Nia: [laughter]
Mimi: 2$eryone lo$es the Spanish 6i$il War.
Nia: Yeah. I don't 'et it.
Mimi: [laughter]
Nia: -ut like, not a whole lot of talk about anti-colonial stru''les in &frica or &sia. &nd then you
published a book—was it last year, or the year before?
Mimi: I think it was "all A@;A.
Nia: &nd what's the title?
Mimi: It's called The Gift of reedom! "ar# $e%t# and &ther Refugee 'assages.
Nia: &nd your book 4ust won, I should know this—
Mimi: [laughter] It 4ust won, it's co-winner of the A@;C I 'uess, #utstandin' -ook in 6ultural Studies
&ward from the &ssociation of &sian &merican Studies. [laughter]
Nia: &nd what is the book about?
Mimi: )he book is actually—I often think that, a'ain, this is like a seed that punk planted in me, but—
the book is about thinkin' about how the 7nited States wa'es war in the name of 'i$in' to others who
are presumed not to ha$e it the 'ift of freedom. -ut how in 'i$in' %uote-un%uote *the 'ift of freedom,
it's actually the imposition of liberal empire. )hat the idea of *the 'ift of freedom, isn't 4ust a rhetorical
ploy, but it's actually how liberal empire asserts its powers o$er other populations.
Nia: 6an you e0plain what is meant by liberal empire?
Mimi: I think of liberal empire as a way of talkin' about a kind of imperial pro4ect that presumes that
it's not an imperial pro4ect. 1ike, the 7nited States doesn't call itself an empire. It ima'ines itself—
Nia: &s a bene$olent force that in$ades other countries?
Mimi: Yes, it's 4ust a bene$olent force that in$ades other countries in order to liberate them and teach
them how to be better at %uote-un%uote bein' *free., It's the empire that claims not to be one. So that's
what I think makes it a liberal empire, because it distin'uishes itself from earlier iterations of empire
that are less shy about callin' themsel$es imperial, e$en as it borrows from those same kinds of
colonial mappin's of the world and ways of talkin' about populations, and stuff like that. It nonetheless
presumes a distinction between the empires of *old, %uote-un%uote, and the way in which it, the 7nited
States, conducts itself in the world.
Nia: What do you think is uni%ue about your analysis of this issue?
Mimi: I 'uess because I take seriously the idea of the 'ift of freedom, a'ain not 4ust as rhetorical ploy
or a lie, but how imperial power asserts itself—that the 'ift of freedom is actually a description of how
imperial power asserts itself. I ar'ue that, drawin' on these two theorists, one who talks about the 'ift
as the imposition of a debt, so this idea that the 'ift that announces itself as a 'ift is actually an
imposition of a debt. /y fa$orite e0ample is, you hear the clichK of the mom who's like *I 'a$e you
life( I can—you owe me(, So it's not a 'ift, if it announces itself as a 'ift and if it's somethin' that can
be taken back, or be used to obli'e the person who recei$es the 'ift to act in a particular way, or to
direct themsel$es towards certain kinds of desires or ways of bein' in the world.
I borrow from this "rench theorist Fac%ues 8errida when he theori.es the 'ift as an imposition of debt.
)he idea that *I'$e 'i$en you this 'ift of freedom, you owe us in a particular way., &nd then the other
person I draw on is another "rench theorist named /ichel "oucault who ar'ues that freedom is nothin'
more or less than the relationship between the 'o$ernor and the 'o$erned. -ecause definitions of
freedom $ary so widely, and people ha$e different kinds of attachments to freedom, and yet freedom is
ima'ined to be the thin' that e$ery human bein' wants, and yet e$eryone defines it differently. If we
think about it 4ust as that, the relationship between the 'o$ernor and the 'o$erned, we can see how
freedom operates as a political problem, as a problem of power and who has it o$er who, and what does
it look like.
Nia: What is the ideal relationship, what is the relationship between the 'o$ernor and the 'o$erned that
would e%ual freedom?
Mimi: 7h—
Nia: #r am I misunderstandin' the—?
Mimi: Well, he ar'ues, and I a'ree with him, that there is no ideal form of freedom, but that it is 4ust
this constant ne'otiation between the 'o$ernor and the 'o$erned about what constitutes freedom. So
there's 4ust a constant debate about what freedom looks like that happens between the 'o$ernor and the
'o$erned, in terms of ha$in' these competin' ideas about freedom. I'm ar'uin' that we all assume that
freedom is somethin' we all want, but we can't actually a'ree on what the content is, ri'ht? 1ike,
people don't a'ree on what freedom looks like. So I sort of a$oid talkin' about—I don't want to talk
about what I think, ideally, freedom should look like. -ut I want to look at how people talk about
freedom in order to make certain kinds of claims to power, and to describe that relationship between
the 'o$erned and the 'o$ernors. 8oes that make sense?
Nia: I think so.
Mimi: Yeah. )here's always talk about how some people ha$e too much freedom. Some people don't
ha$e enou'h freedom. &nd then there are all those ne'otiations about it. It's precisely these kind of
measurements, of who has too much, who has too little freedom that then, liberal empire can come in
and say, *You don't ha$e enou'h freedom. You don't know what it looks like. 1et us show you.,
Nia: #r *you're not usin' it correctly.,
Mimi: *You're not usin' it correctly., >i'ht, so all these kinds of measurements and e$aluations and
assessments, and promises then to produce freedom for other people is what interests me, rather than
tryin' to find *well, here's an e0ample of people bein' free., #r *here's what freedom should look like,
ideally., I'm not tryin' to do those kinds of thin's. I'm interested in how freedom becomes a way to
describe and to enact certain kinds of $iolence and power.
Nia: Yeah. &nd you apply this analysis to a couple of specific 'eo'raphical and historical places and
situations. Ira%, &f'hanistan—
Mimi: &nd Eietnam.
Nia: #kay.
Mimi: Yeah.
Nia: &nd maybe I 'ot this wron', but I thou'ht that you're also lookin' at how this informs immi'rant
and refu'ee e0periences in the 7S.
Mimi: Yeah. )hat's in there.
Nia: 6ould you talk about that a little bit?
Mimi: I use the e0ample of the Eietnamese refu'ee as someone who recei$es the 'ift of freedom twice
o$er. )he first time in the form of the 7nited States wa'in' war in Eietnam to free—to keep the
6ommunists from takin' o$er Eietnam. If you 'o back and look at the lan'ua'e of the Eietnam War,
it's all about helpin' the South Eietnamese to learn how to be free, how to preser$e freedom a'ainst the
tyranny of 6ommunist rule, so that the 7nited States war in Eietnam is one way of the 'ift of freedom
bein' 'ranted to the South Eietnamese. )he second way is then lettin' in refu'ees from the war in
Eietnam. We then recei$e the 'ift of freedom twice o$er. "irst in terms of war, and second in terms of
refu'e. I look at refu'ee policy, and how refu'ee policy was really informed by anti-6ommunist
ideolo'ies, and the 'oals of the 7S state. "or instance, the 7nited States defined as refu'ees, or
accepted as refu'ees people who were fleein' from 6ommunist countries, but not people who are
fleein' from totalitarian states that the 7nited States was allied with.
Nia: >i'ht.
Mimi: >efu'ee policy was $ery much informed by the 7S state's own political interests and anti-
6ommunism and the 6old War. )hat's how I look at how that plays out in terms of the Eietnamese
Nia: &nd the sort of continuin' sense of debt once someone has reached the 7S.
Mimi: Yeah. #ne of the e0amples in the book is about how the author of the +atriot &ct is a
Eietnamese refu'ee who was an assistant attorney 'eneral in the Fustice 8epartment, and he e0plicitly
talks about writin' the +atriot &ct as part of his debt to the 7nited States for the 'ift of freedom. So he
$ery e0plicitly talks about that.
&nother e0ample is this woman who is a weapons de$eloper for the 7S 9a$y. &nd she created this
thermo-somethin'-somethin' bomb. It's in the book. I can't remember the name of the kind of bomb.
-ut it's this bomb that she created for the war in &f'hanistan that would, because there was all this talk
about &l-Laeda hidin' in ca$es and deep in mountains, so she created this bomb that would create a
heat wa$e so intense that it could e0plode on the outside of a mountain, but then melt e$eryone's or'ans
who mi'ht be inside of it.
Nia: Wow.
Mimi: -ecause the heat would be so intense. So she talks about the bomb that she created and
de$eloped for this war in &f'hanistan as, a'ain, part of her repayin' the debt for her 'ift of freedom,
and as a part of participatin' in liberal empire, so then 'rantin' more freedom to &f'hanistan in the
form of this de$astatin' bomb. So this idea that this weapon is part of—
Nia: +ayin' it forward.
Mimi: +ayin' it forward. [laughter] Yeah.
Nia: )hat is so intense.
Mimi: Yeah( It's super intense( )hat book is really informed by me feelin' like, what the fuck is
happenin'? 3ow are these kinds of—how is this lan'ua'e happenin'? 3ow are people accessin' this
lan'ua'e of debt for the 'ift of freedom? If we take seriously the ways in which people are describin'
their debt for the 'ift of freedom, how can we think about how the 'ift of freedom is not 4ust, a'ain,
like a rhetorical flourish that sounds nice, but it's actually how liberal empire conducts itself and
e0ercises its form of rule.
Nia: It actually becomes deeply embedded in indi$idual psycholo'y. )hat's so deep. [laughter]
Mimi: Yeah. It's intense. It's a lot.
Nia: So people should buy the book. [laughter] Is there anythin' else that you want to plu' before we
Mimi: IlaughterJ 9o, not really.
Nia: #kay. You should check out Slander. It's a$ailable from -rown >ecluse?
Mimi: Yes. It's a$ailable from -rown >ecluse and Stran'er 8an'er .ine distros.
Nia: 6ool. )hanks so much for bein' on the podcast.
Mimi: )hanks for ha$in' me(

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